"Good" Players vs. Winning Players in Poker

Most people assume a good poker player is a winning poker player and vice versa.

I don't think this is right, but differentiating between them is a bit tricky - maybe more than you think.

A "winning" player is one who, over enough time and a sufficient number of hands for the data to be statistically reliable, takes more money off the table than he puts on it.

"Good" is trickier. You can be a good player without being a winning player. I know, that feels a little weird. It isn't.

How to Be Good

A couple of weeks back I did a little pop psychology riff on Zen. We mused on the affective elements of the game, looking for ways to maintain emotional equilibrium no matter what was happening.

In essence, we were looking at ways to become a "good" player. If this also made you into a "winning" player, that would be cool, but it's not necessary and certainly not guaranteed.

Indeed, figuring out what makes a "good" player isn't straightforward. For starters, good poker players have fun, and they'd better - because they're almost certainly going to lose.

Very few come out ahead over the long haul, due to differing skill levels and/or the house rake, the "vig."

Many (most?) players don't quite grasp the role the vig plays in low-stakes games where the vast majority of players are found.

In a $2/$4 limit game, the typical maximum rake is from a reasonable $3 to a crushing $5, and I've seen $6!

Add the dealer's tip and the bad beat jackpot takeout that players have a preternatural (and unfortunate) affection for, and up to 2BBs get sliced out of each sizable pot.

This rake is essentially impossible to overcome.

So, while it'd be nice to be a winning player, the truth is that most of you won't be. So don't sweat it.

Poker is Recreation

Poker is, at heart, a form of recreation. Recreation costs money. Movies cost, tickets to a hockey game cost, a dinner out costs.

We are all perfectly content to "lose" money in our preferred forms of recreation and "good" poker players view the game in just this way.

Phil Galfond
Good players think about the game. A lot.

Good players also think about the game, how they're playing, how others are playing. They read, talk with friends and contribute to the dozens of Internet chat rooms and discussion groups.

If you're not already active in one of these groups, join in. You'll find an astonishing array of smart, engaging people - and, of course, the occasional flame-thrower.

Just ignore them. Good players treat poker like a hobby, where you keep learning and look to improve.

Good players also work to diminish variance. There's a natural fluctuation to the game, and everyone is going to have ups and downs, but the game is far easier to enjoy when the swings are modulated.

Lowering variance also makes it easier to play your best game more of the time. Few things derail the average player more than a huge hit to their bankroll.

The Most Complex Game Played?

One aspect of the game that gets lost in a lot of these discussions is that poker is likely the most complex competitive game routinely played.

It is more complex, has more interwoven strategic levels and is tougher to master than any of the other supposedly intricate games like bridge and chess.

You chess mavens out there can scream all you want, but if you understand both games at anything close to a deep level, you know what I'm talking about.

Can You Win Without Being Good?

OK; now you see how you can be a "good" player without being a "winning" player. Can you be a "winning" player but not be a "good" player?

Absolutely. There won't be many of this breed, but they are out there. My guess - since I've got no data here I'm running on my own fumes - is that there are at least three kinds of winning players who are not particularly good players.

First, there are the highly aggressive players with little regard for money, ones who view the game as a deadly competition, or a parade ground for their egos.

These guys (and they are almost always men) can be long-term winners from a strictly cash point of view but not be good players in anything like the descriptions above.

Their visits to tiltville will undercut their game. The stress that comes with approaching each session with such a highly tuned competitiveness will eventually take its toll.

And, most critically, the high variability that a playing style like this carries with it will mean that this type of player will often not be playing his A-game.

Most of these "action junkies" won't be winning players 10 years down the road unless they make serious adjustments.

Then there are the unmovable rocks, the tightest of the tight. Their style will ultimately yield a positive EV so, by definition, they are "winning" players.

Allen Kessler
If a min-cash falls in the forest, does anybody hear it?

But they will not be "good" players. They are often skinflints who play every day looking to grind out a couple of bucks for lunch, the car payment, rent.

They're not having fun, and don't enjoy themselves - when they play poker, they are essentially going to work.

They have no A-game, because they are so protective of their bankrolls that they stay at B level. That's OK for them, but I wouldn't want to spend my life this way.

Lastly, There's Me

Lastly, there are folks like me. I'm a long-term positive EV guy. I know this because I keep records and am brutally honest with myself.

But I don't think I am a good player. In fact, I am a better poker writer than a poker player.

I have too many brain farts, moments where I flatline and do something mind-bendingly stupid.

When these mental lacunae happen they undo hours and hours of "good" play. Worse, I get really, really ticked at myself and end up howling at the moon like a wolf who's lost his kill.

In these moments I do not have fun and so, by my definition, I am not a "good" player.

Author Bio:

Arthur Reber has been a poker player and serious handicapper of thoroughbred horses for four decades. He is the author of 'The New Gambler's Bible and coauthor of Gambling for Dummies'.

His new book 'Poker, Life and Other Confusing Things' from ConJelCo Publishing was just released and is available on Amazon.com.

Formerly a regular columnist for Poker Pro Magazine and Fun 'N' Games magazine, he has also contributed to Card Player (with Lou Krieger), Poker Digest, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Titan Poker. He outlined a new framework for evaluating the ethical and moral issues that emerge in gambling for an invited address to the International Conference of Gaming and Risk Taking.

Until recently he was the Broeklundian Professor of Psychology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.

Among his various visiting professorships was a Fulbright fellowship at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. Now semi-retired, Reber is a visiting scholar at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

More poker strategy articles from Arthur S. Reber:

  • One for the Old Guys: Reaction Times, Decision Times and Memory
  • Partial Reinforcement Part Two
  • Partial Reinforcement Part One
  • A Little Riff on Zen
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